Last night, feeling jazzed about rediscovering Taylor Hackford‘s Proof of Life and realizing it’s a lot better than I’d recalled, I rewatched another violent, crime-related Russell Crowe film from the aughts — Ridley Scott‘s American Gangster (’07).

It remains a sturdy, absorbing, culturally fascinating, Sidney Lumet-like depiction of the rise and fall of heroin importer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the scrappy, scrupulously honest detective, Richie Roberts (Crowe), who eventually busted and prosecuted Lucas in ’75 and ’76.

AG opened 14 years ago, and plays just as grippingly as ever — no diminishment, constantly engaging, stepped in the lore of Harlem and North Jersey. And my God, Denzel (52 during filming, now 67) looks so young! Younger, in fact, than he did in Spike Lee‘s Inside Man (’06). And what a murderer’s row of African American (or African British) players — Chiwetel Ejiofor, RZA, Cuba Gooding Jr., Joe Morton, Idris Elba, Common, the late Clarence Williams III, Ruby Dee, Roger Guenveur Smith, Malcolm Goodwin.

I was struck again by how satisfyingly well made this film is, as good in its own New York City way (the clutter and crap of the streets, high on those uptown fumes) as Lumet’s Prince of the City (’81).

One reason it plays so well, I was telling myself last night, is that big-studio movies, free from the influence of the superhero plague that was just around the corner in ’06, were generally a lot better in the aughts than they are now. 2007, remember, was one of the great all-time years.

Incidentally: I’ve never watched the 176-minute “Unrated Extended Edition” of American Gangster. Has anyone?